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They Came to the City

Listener – November 10, 2001

How Ngati Poneke created a new kind of Maori kinship.

Two weeks before the publication of The Silent Migration, an impressive new book that recalls the great urban migration of Maori in the middle of the 20th century, Agnes “Bubs” Broughton had a stroke which was probably brought on by trying to catch the postman to post off a list of the people she wanted to attend the launch of the book at Wellington’s Pipitea Marae.

Five other original members of the Ngati Poneke Young Maori Club also passed away over the 10 years of working on the book about the club’s early days (1937-48). In all, 16 original members told their stories to Patricia Grace, Irihapeti Ramsden and Jonathan Dennis; but, emphasises Grace, “It is their voices instead of ours. We were just gentle facilitators.” 

Dennis says it was “incredibly sad” that people died during the making of the book. “They were a real loss to us. We were particularly touched when Bubs Broughton, whose picture is on the back cover, died two weeks before the launch. She had so looked forward to it. In the beginning she was too shy to think she should even participate, to the point where she talked of nothing else.” 

Beautifully produced, with many historic photographs, The Silent Migration maps the journeys of young Maori from rural villages to a “sea of Pakeha faces” in Wellington. Ramsden, who was one of the first urban-born babies at Ngati Poneke, says in her introduction that the people who tell their stories in the book were on average only 17 years old when they began their journeys from home. Most of them travelled a little earlier than the main body of people. By the time of the 1945 census the Maori population of Wellington city (total population 123,771) was still only 780. 

Paul Potiki says in the book that the genesis of Ngati Poneke can be traced to World War I. 

“This was a time when Maori became readily identifiable as a people in the wider world of the Pakeha. Previously in Wellington, Maori were seen only as a handful of articulate politicians and public servants, a few talented sportspeople, or neighbours down the road who were sort of oddities in a way. During World War I Apirana Ngata and Maui Pomare were members of Parliament. One spinoff from these positions was an obligation to mobilise Maori behind the war effort, and in particular behind the Maori Battalion . . . 

“At home a committee, mainly of women, was formed in Wellington by Lady Miria Pomare, Maui Pomare’s wife. Through magnificent organisation and a hitherto unrealised commercial capacity they accumulated very substantial funds for patriotic purposes. This was pumped overseas to the Maori Battalion for comforts and presents. I have no doubt the committee did at that time what they later did in our World War II: they sent parcels of treats, things like muttonbirds.” 

The organisational momentum set going by these activities was maintained in various forms after the war, and in 1937, Meri Mataira says, “Lady Pomare and her Maori Women’s Welfare Committee, who were also part of the Anglican Maori Mission Society, became perturbed at the growing number of young Maori coming to the capital and wandering the streets . . .” 

And so the Ngati Poneke Young Maori Club was born. The name was taken from that given by Sir Apirana Ngata to concert party in 1936. (Poneke is a transliteration for Port Nicholson.) 

The club held weekly meetings and performed concerts in Wellington and around the country under the leadership of Lady Pomare and Kingi Tahiwi. They carried out social work in Wellington and hosted the American troops. 

“The Americans really made a woman feel important,” recalls Witarina Harris. “It was no trouble to see an American serviceman in the street with a bunch of flowers. This was a thing that our poor boys never knew much about. To go and see your girlfriend with a bunch of flowers – what? But they did notice the attention the American boys got, eh! We started to see our boys with a bunch of flowers. But they hid them behind their backs! Of course the Ngati Poneke girls lapped it up.” 

“Ngati Poneke Young Maori Club became our very life, socially,” says Margaret Smiler. “The club, with its feeling for family togetherness, was a lifeline to which we all clung. It provided so much support and made us proud of our heritage so we knew who we were regardless of the way some of our people were being treated in other parts of the country.” 

Elsewhere in the book Val Morgan, Witarina Harris and Francis Warren vividly recount their hometown memories in Ohinemutu, the Hokianga, and Westport (Kawatiri) respectively before coming to Wellington in 1930s. 

Harris was sought out by Sir Apirana Ngati to be his typist. Before that he had given her name to a couple of American film-makers for a silent film called “The Devil’s Pit”, which was shot on White Island and in the Waitomo Caves. 

“The story of the film was, as usual, a love story,” says Harris. “There were two tribes. I was supposed to be puhi, kept special, and my future husband was already chosen for me. But of course, being young you fall in love with the one you want to fall in love with. The man set aside for me didn’t have a chance . . . 

“They showed a special premiere of the film at the Deluxe Theatre in Wellington in 1929, and that was the only time I ever saw it at the time. I didn’t hear anything more about it for another 54 years. But that one film was later responsible for me becoming kaumatua for The New Zealand Film Archive and giving me so much excitement, taking me all over the world.” 

Harris wasn’t so lucky in her earlier days at Ngati Poneke. She married a Pakeha who was jealous of her involvement with the club; it wasn’t until he went off to World War II that she became more active in club as one its star soloists and community workers. 

Not all the tales in the book are positive and happy. Depicted here is the gut-wrenching return of the 28th Maori Battalion from War World II: Ngati Poneke had seen them off and welcomed what was left of their number back. “So few boys returned home to Aotearoa . . . their mortal remains forever left lying in some foreign grave,” laments Mihipeka Edwards. 

And reprinted in The Silent Migration is a seven-page document, dated November 16, 1942, to the then Native Department, signed by Fred Katene, Chairman of the Ngati Poneke Tribal Committee, graphically outlining the appalling conditions in which some Maori were living. 

“When we found that report, that’s when we saw what the other was,” says Dennis. “The slums, alcoholism, racism, the venereal disease and loneliness. Ngati Poneke assured they didn’t slip down the cracks into what was a pretty wretched situation. Once we found that, the book was not only about the club, but a sense of migration.” 

At the book’s launch, Ramsden says, “I looked at these families and I could see five generations. And I looked across the families. These people didn’t come to Ngati Poneke as large family groups. They came as very small families and individuals, but they had actually created a kinship group. They were very closely connected, not based on land, which you traditionally have, but by kinship.” 

The front cover of The Silent Migration is graced by 12 women, who were part of the executive committee of Lady Liverpool and Lady Pomare’s World War I Maori Soldiers’ Fund, standing proudly in traditional cloaks. “These were our forebears, the forebears of Ngati Poneke,” says Riria Utiku. 

“We thought these women looked so strong and future orientated,” says Ramsden. “Not like the Goldie paintings, which look so backward, conquered and down. These women look strong and leading. They are the forebears of these people (Ngati Poneke). They were bridge people. They were leaders of their people.” 

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